"Troubled" families

Louise Casey’s report, Listening to Troubled Families, does what it says in the title: it reports the concerns of issues of a number of families with problems. She’s convinced that intensive social work can make a difference, and as far as that goes I have no disagreement. But there are serious problems in the language that she is using, and in particular in her persistent references to inter-generational problems. She’s talked about “welfare dependency and sexual abuse going back generations.” She refers to “entrenched cycles of suffering problems and causing problems”. She claimed that “problems such as sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and educational failure were often repeated by different generations.”

This argument has a long history. “Troubled families” have been called degenerates, moral defectives, the abyss, problem families, multi-problem families, the ‘hard to reach’ and the underclass. The claim that they passed problems from one generation to another features in arguments on degeneracy, the culture of poverty, the cycle of deprivation, transmitted deprivation and the dependency culture. And what we can say about all of these arguments, because there are decades of evidence to draw on, is that they are not true. The population of people who have problems now is not substantially the same as those who will have problems in ten years’ time. Most adults have varying experiences through their lifetimes. Most children from deprived backgrounds are not deprived as adults. Keith Joseph, who coined the phrase “the cycle of deprivation”, set up a major social science project to investigate it. From that project, we know that if, over a long period of time, we begin with a cohort of the most deprived children and follow them through the generations, their great-grandchildren will have much the same profile as the rest of the population. For example, as part of the work, a thousand deprived families in Newcastle were followed through the generations. They did not pass down problems from parent to child. (The main source is I Kolvin and others, Continuities of deprivation, Avebury 1990.)


  1. Keith Cooper

    So what is not true? The ‘language’ that Louise Casey uses or the idea that welfare dependency is sometimes (but not always) an inter-generational phenomena? It seems right to say that this kind of dependency is present in some cases. That is all Casey would have to say to be on the right track. Does the evidence really show that intergenerational dependency never occurs? I would be amazed if it does.

    What seems laudable about the ‘troubled families’ programme is that it is attempting to tackle a particular group of families which previous disjointed welfare support have failed to help. Even if the global evidence shows that their ‘problems’ are not always intergeneration, it seems plausible that some families can be characterised in this way.

    While I totally agree with the importance of getting the ‘language’ right. What seems even more important is getting the right kind of help to these families. Part of this might require that we bite the bullet by accepting that some families are in an intergenerational mess. Even if the research shows that such cases are not typical. It’s not called the ‘Troubled Families’ initiative for nothing, I suspect.

    • Paul Spicker

      Dependency throughout a single lifetime is unusual – check out the figures for long term benefit receipt on this blog. Most children from deprived backgrounds are not themselves deprived as adults – it depends on education, partners and employment prospects. It follows that dependency sustained from one generation to another is rare, and dependency through three generations is quite exceptional. (I’ve made the arguments in a Catalyst pamphlet; it was published some time ago but as this is about developments over several decades, that shouldn’t matter.)

      We can certainly find three generations of a family who are all deprived now – that’s what happens if you live in the same area, facing the same labour market. It’s a different proposition to claim that someone who was unemployed in 1962 would have a child unemployed in 1987 and a grandchild unemployed in 2012. Researchers who are currently looking for families with this sort of pattern have compared it to a search for the Yeti.

  2. Rational Enquirer

    So if there is a longitudinal “escape from deprivation” across several generations, where did all the currently deprived families come from? And are your predicting a trajectory upon which we will one day have no deprived families?

    • Paul Spicker

      There’s not just a route out of deprivation – there’s also a route into it. Most of us (more than
      60% of households, when figures have been available) have been deprived for some part of
      the last ten years; others will fall into deprivation in coming years. The fallacy is to believe
      that deprived people are pathologically different from the rest of us.

  3. Rational Enquirer

    I wonder if “deprived” and “troubled” are different? When i meet young women who are in violent relationships, there is usually a strong intergenerational pattern of domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependency, teenage pregnancy, short gaps between children, multiple sexual partners, family breakdown and criminality. But many also work or attend college and may not claim any benefits. some want help, some don’t.
    I meet many troubled families, many of whom are behaving in a very antisocial manner, but this seems independent of household income.
    I see very few troubled families where there is no intergenerational pattern of “trouble”

  4. Paul Spicker

    The government’s definition of ‘troubled families’ is based on them meeting five of the following seven criteria:
    1. having a low income,
    2. no one in the family who is working,
    3. poor housing,
    4. parents who have no qualifications,
    5. where the mother has a mental health problem
    6. one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
    7. where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
    Those are all, however, indicators of deprivation, rather than of posing problems to others.

    There are links between poverty and some of the issues you mention – notably family breakdown. Family breakdown leads to serial monogamy rather than multiple partners. Teenage motherhood (as opposed to pregnancy) has a link to low income, because poor girls with no educational or career prospects may choose to have a baby in circumstances where a richer girl with better prospects won’t.

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